Limited resources cannot satisfy unlimited human wants. Most of modern economics is built upon this central assumption, particularly the economics we learn at the A levels. But students are never taught this is an assumption. And modern education isn’t very good at encouraging students to question what's presented to them as fact by the marking scheme. It’s easy to see how scarcity was arrived at. Competition for land, labour, food and water have characterised mankind from its earliest recorded history. From the Great Famines of 1315 to today’s North-South divide. But it's also not difficult to see how it is flawed. Resources are not always limited. Economics calls such resources abundant - like air, which people can take for granted. It is not, though, that the supply of air is infinite. It is merely unlimited relative to human demand for it. Wants, too, are not always unlimited. A simple way to see how this is possible is to look at the number of wants a dead person has. Which is not to say that death is necessary for economic improvement. For example, a person can only eat so much food in a buffet. Even when faced with relatively unlimited supply, his desire for food is limited by time and, literally, space. Wants are also limited in variety and quantity. A person is unlikely to want something he has never seen before, or has lesser use of than something he already has. And there are only so many objects a person can possess. In fact, you can live with only 100 things in your entire life. You might think that because the want for money is unlimited, then a person’s want for the means to earn it will be. This argument is based on an invalid premise, because the want for money too can be limited. Don’t believe me? Ask this guy. In short, you can limit your wants. And according to TED, doing so might actually make you happier. Ultimately, resources are limited and wants unlimited because we define them to be so. It is not necessary to see them that way. In particular, because we make the excuse that wants are unlimited, we think resources must be limited, relative to the wants they need to fulfil. And we go about thinking it’s ok to have insatiable appetites. The problem, then, is that a majority of people who have 'learnt' economics at the A levels will not realise this. Thinking that wants are necessarily unlimited gives rise to unnecessarily adversarial attitudes - formed from what is perceived to be a fixed sum game. If someone else gains, I lose. But that is not true, and even if this assumption is challenged at universities, most students will not be taking economics by then. What they will take, however, is the lesson that resources are scarce and that we can’t all be happy together. But it doesn't have to be this way. What other false assumptions are there about economics?
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Before you skip the rest of the article and launch into a heated critique of how insensitive this is, let me first qualify that the haze was bad. There’s no doubt about that, and I’d really rather it didn’t happen. But now that the smoke’s a little thinner and more light’s coming through, perhaps it’s time to look on the brighter side of things, and focus on why the haze might also have been good for us, just as it was bad. I mean, for a country that typically enjoys a geographically inherited immunity from natural disasters, as well as relative political, economic and social stability, being confronted with a national crisis…still sucks, yes, but it’s also something we don’t usually get living in our supposedly ‘air-conditioned’ climate. It had the effect of bringing us closer together and uniting us in the common awareness of a shared experience. In other words, now I can pretty much talk to anyone on the street about the weather for once, and we can all have a good laugh about how bad it was. Maybe we’d share some jokes about the #sghaze. It’s as much of a great conversation opener which help forge national identity and culture. And what doesn’t kill you is supposed to make you stronger, right? In remembrance of perhaps one of the greatest creative periods we’ve had in Singapore, here’s a round-up of the good things the haze gave us, for once. Starting with… #6 – Bringing Out The Resourcefulness In Us The initial chaos that ensued during what can be seen as the “N95 panic” showed how clever Singaporeans can get in times of crisis. People started placing orders for the masks on Amazon and Groupon, and some (questionably) saw a business opportunity right there. I mean, people did so much of that private importing that the Business Times managed to run this hilarious article about it. (note: this link doesn’t go to the actual Business Times website, because they took it down from there. Credits still go to them). As for the rest of us who weren't as entreprising, we didn't quite sit quietly and wait for things to happen either. People took it upon themselves to share health advisories, read up about PSI and other indicators, and find alternatives to the N95 (see above). In fact, an independent effort known as the SG Haze Rescue was started for people to share resources and help those who needed it. We’re commonly known to be dependent and passive. Some have even said we're childish. How we reacted here proves we are not dumb nor incompetent. #5 – Raising Concern On The Environment The last time we heard about the PSI, it was last year during a way more tolerable haze outbreak. This time, however, things got so bad Singaporeans pretty much became environmental scientists overnight. People were so well-versed in air quality and standards that they actually called for the government to adjust them. If it wasn’t for the haze, some might still think the PSI had something to do with sunglasses and horsing around. And honestly, no one would really care about the Sumatran fires if this all hadn’t happened. I know I didn’t. While in the past it was an inconvenience at worst, this year's haze posed such serious health risks that the atmosphere (literally) moved from one of general apathy to fierce debates and even finger pointing on which companies and countries were responsible for all that burning. Now I wouldn’t say playing the blame game is good, but as the Singaporean mantra goes, better than nothing. Let’s just hope this enthusiasm doesn’t die along with the flames, and real progress will be made to prevent this from happening again. #4 – An Explosion Of Creative Expression When international polling body Gallup published survey results identifying Singaporeans as the most unhappy in the world, many were most unhappy about it. But the one thing we’d probably rank lower in than happiness is creativity. Not that we’re not creative, you know, except we seldom (get a chance to) showcase just how ingenious our right-brains are. It's like as the fog covered our nation, a lid was lifted on our creativity. Suddenly, everyone was busy making jokes, memes and witty comments about the haze, because it gave lots of people the avenues and motivations to do just that. To the organizations that are planning to rank Singapore 2nd last on some creativity index (you probably exist), watch this and see if you can still put Singapore at rock bottom: That’s one less unmet KPI for us to worry about, especially when firms too are putting out... #3 – Some More Creative Advertising (Finally) The advertising concepts used in Singapore have been re-used so many times most of us can actually recite how a typical advertisement unfolds. Ok here’s a random celebrity endorsing some product you actually need to be a doctor to properly endorse, oh, now they’re showing me the before pictures. I really can’t wait for the after… Thanks in part to the haze and in part to social media, though, companies decided that since everyone was so concerned with PSI and PM 2.5, they’d actually make ads that were already about what we were concerned with, for a change. And that gave us this: Disclosure: I did not receive any kind of incentive or reward from the above companies for posting this. I wish I did, but no. In either case, the haze also brought about... #2 – Greater Awareness Of Neighbourly Ties Shameless self-advertising for the meme I made aside, the haze did bring the two countries closer. Singaporeans became more aware and interested in not only the fires burning in Sumatra, but the poverty and perhaps exploitation that may be going on there that’s driving farmers to resort to such - infernal - tactics. You could say our ties have also been strained by cross-allegations and harsh remarks from various parties, but fighting brings people closer too, doesn’t it? Hopefully (and in fact most probably), both parties would be able to work together to solve what is actually a regional issue that's been left unsolved for some time now. And as an ex-History student, I’m inclined to add how this could pave the way for future collaboration and sow the seeds of harmony between the two countries by setting a plausible precedent for cooperation (that's how you write for History). Finally, the best thing the haze did for us was that it's over, at least for now, and... #1 – Breathing Clean Air Now Feels Amazing. It’s that feeling you get when exams are over, that kick of emotion I can only describe as SHIIIOOK SIA, that you could never feel if there weren’t these terrible things. Likewise, without the haze, we’d never be so happy it was over. It’s warped reasoning, yes, but that doesn’t stop it from being awesome. Because we've seen how bad it could get when a basic necessity such as air is deprived from us, we've learnt to cherish what we normally take for granted. And joy has never been as cheap as the free, PSI 17 air we have now. So yes, our good neighbor, I’m really thankful for all the clean air you’re supplying us! Now let's make sure those 'air suppliers' aren't all burnt down, okay? In the end, the cloud of smoke that blanketed Singapore did have a silver lining. As a people, we've gained not only a shared experience that unites us, but a whole range of photoshop, meme-making, article-writing, amazon-mask-hunting and N95 wearing skills. Not to mention a closer understanding of things like PSI and PM 2.5, which really do affect us. More importantly, as a population, we've grown to become more aware and informed on real and important issues including regional diplomacy and the environment. Should the haze come back, we'll be ready.